- Associated Press - Sunday, April 22, 2012

SUNRISE, FLA. (AP) - Florida coach Kevin Dineen was fretting on the bench as the Panthers were trying to protect a two-goal lead, a mere minute away from taking a 3-2 lead over New Jersey in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff matchup.

At that moment, Dineen wasn’t only worried about the outcome.

No, he was also fixated on the toy plastic rat sitting on the ice. The “Rat Trick” _ an odd South Florida hockey tradition _ is going strong once again.

It dates back in Florida to the 1995-96 season, when fan favorite Scott Mellanby used his stick to exterminate one of the critters in the Panthers’ dressing room before a game, then went out and scored two goals that night. Mellanby’s actions soon became part of the team’s lore, and fans are now encouraged to litter the ice with plastic rats after every home win.

Except, well, many don’t wait that long.

“A lot of premature rats out there,” Panthers forward Kris Versteeg noted after Florida beat the Devils 3-0 in Game 5 on Saturday night, moving one win from the franchise’s first series victory since that 1996 season, when the rat tossers watched their team go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.

The series resumes Tuesday night in New Jersey, with the Devils needing a win to force a trip back to South Florida for a Game 7 on Thursday night _ where fans with rats surely will be waiting.

“I’m a great believer in tradition,” Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “I think it’s great for the fans. It’s kind of a pain when you play.”

Despite repeated pleas from the public-address announcer and plenty of notices being flashed on the team’s massive center-ice scoreboard _ saying anyone caught throwing a rat during the game would be ejected, plus risk the team getting a two-minute penalty for delay of game _ there’s more than a few fans who pay no heed. At least a couple dozen hit the ice after every Florida goal.

The Panthers are worried. The Devils are unhappy.

“Even if you look at the reaction of some of the Panthers’ players, some of them are kind of shaking their heads about it,” Brodeur said. “Just for the NHL to let them give out rats, come on. That’s unbelievable.”

Actually, they’re not given out. They’re sold for $5 apiece.

It’s also tough to know which fans are creating the problem. On Twitter, there are a number of purported Devils fans who claim to be some of the ones throwing rats after goals, with hopes of seeing New Jersey be awarded a power play.

So far, the Panthers have scored nine goals at home in this series. No penalties _ well, not yet.

“Great win but fans, we cannot throw rats during the game,” Panthers President Michael Yormark tweeted Saturday night after the win. “This has become a serious issue.”

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